What IS a College?

This morning’s Daily Briefing from the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a link to an op-ed by Scott D. Miller, the president of Virginia Wesleyan College. In it, he talks the way that you’d expect a college president to talk—in platitudes, yes, but more centrally about colleges as businesses. Regarding the various threats facing smaller schools, he writes:

Those willing to take an objective look at their missions, their capacity for innovation, their planning and financial models, and their relationships with home communities and synergistic partners will stand the best chance of remaining viable. 

Dilbert could not have done better.

Language aside, though, we have to remember that this is a man charged with running a very large and very complicated business, with over forty divisions. And just as Vivek Sankaran, the CEO of Frito-Lay North America, doesn’t often grab a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from the rack at the mini-mart, the president of any college has a remarkably distant relationship to what happens in a classroom, or a dormitory, or the admissions office. For its executives, a snack food manufacturer or a college is a money-harvesting machine, a predator whose metabolism burns through resources, always on the alert for its next meal.

The fact is that higher education is any number of different things, depending on where an individual stands within it. For permanent faculty, a school is an employer, in daily contact reduced to a single department. For contingent faculty, a school is a gig, a logistical and navigational challenge that must be met fresh every day. It’s also a statement of faith—that membership in this community is so emotionally important that they’re willing to endure remarkable suffering and disrespect to remain its tenuous members.

And for students? That experience varies enormously, based on the kind of school you go to and how you got there and various aspects of your identity and all of the other cultural resources you have available. But, although it’s passe, let’s think about the student experience of a college—any college—through Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

For far too many students, the basic physiological needs of food and shelter are inconsistent or unavailable. For women or people of color or people who are LGBTQ or have physical disabilities, the second level of safety is also not taken for granted, can be withdrawn without warning. Maslow claimed that if the more basic needs aren’t met, it’s awfully difficult to rise to the challenges of those higher and more ephemeral levels.

But if we could take all of levels 1 and 2 for granted, if every student came to us comfortably housed and decently fed and free from concern over physical safety, the most fundamental work of an institution would then be to help all of its members feel that they belong, that they are valued members of the community. If you don’t feel like others value your presence, if they don’t actively embrace your membership, then it’s worth wondering if you should come back for another semester.

It’s that layer, the sense of college as fellowship, as family, that’s missing at too many institutions and for too many of its members. Community colleges, for instance, are essentially every-man-or-woman-for-themselves experiences, with little opportunity or mechanism for larger collegiate life. That’s equally true for their faculty, the vast majority of whom have no affiliation (and remember that the root of affiliation is filius or son, a beloved and valued member of the family). When we look at a college’s retention and graduation rates, we can wonder about the merits of the academic offerings or the selectivity of admissions that allows the unprepared to give it a shot anyway, but we should consider another and probably more important fact—coming back to school for another semester is fundamentally a decision to rejoin a community. If that community doesn’t love you, it’s harder to make that decision.

So yes, a college is its police force and its accounting department and its grounds. A college is its financial aid office and its student center and its food service. But unless all of those are focused on the larger fact of being a family, of valuing and welcoming every member, then it’s all just Cheetos.

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